What happens when dance is governed by another set of rules? Some thoughts on ‘Work/Travail/Arbeid’ by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (Wiels, Brussels)

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What happens when dance is governed by another set of rules? Well, you get a hype, to begin with. More than 24.000 people went to see Work/Travail/Arbeid by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker during the nine weeks it was on at Wiels contemporary art centre, Brussels. The exhibition was one of this year’s best ‘performances’ a jury of Flemish critics decided, and so there will be a short rerun at Wiels in September, for Het Theaterfestival in Brussels. In 2016 Work/Travail/Arbeid will be presented by Centre Pompidou (Paris) and Tate Modern (London). I went to Wiels several times, trying to figure out why people were so drawn to this. These are my thoughts.

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To my left, Marie Goudot, the girl on the poster. Utterly concentrated on her dance moves. I see it in her eyes, since she is really close to me. I can almost touch her fingers. The soles of her fluorescent orange sneakers are squeaking on the floor. To my right, a little girl. She’s obviously just learned how to stand on her feet. She’s walking, wobbling, falling and getting up again. Smilingly. It’s one of the last days of Work/Travail/Arbeid, and the third floor of Wiels is crowded. All along the walls people are standing, or sitting, watching intently. Somewhere in the middle of the room, a woman with a sketch book and pencils; drawing. I see quite a few families with kids; looking, running around. At this particular moment just two dancers are in the room and one musician is playing. By now almost 24.000 people have come over to see this. I have been here several times, and just as I did during my other visits, I’m trying to figure out what it is that makes this peculiar ‘exhibition’ so appealing.

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Work/Travail/Arbeid was curated by Elena Filipovic, former curator at Wiels, current director of Kunsthalle Basel. It is a reworking of Vortex Temporum, the Rosas performance that premiered at the Ruhrtriennale in October 2013, based on a music piece by French composer Gérard Grisey. A choreography of approximately one hour for which seven dancers (seven voices in Grisey’s piece) are coupled with musicians from contemporary music ensemble Ictus on stage. The exhibition consists of nine one hour parts, which means that it’s impossible to stay and see all of it, as Wiels is only open for seven hours a day. If you’re lucky you catch the part in which a grand piano is spiraling through the room, or all of the dancers and musicians are dancing and playing. On other moments just a few people may be at work. But at work they will be, for nine weeks, even when there are no spectators in the room. Or as Filipovic put it at the press conference launching Work/Travail/Arbeid: ‘You don’t take that Picasso down either when there are no visitors in the museum.

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Work/Travail/Arbeid sure is a very contemporary piece. All around you see attempts to bring contemporary dance and museums closer together. Or choreographers trying to engage with their audience in a different way. Just recently Boris Charmatz was invited by Tate Modern to take over the museum with his Musée De La Dance for two days. In Vera Tussing‘s new piece The Palm Of Your Hand dancers are dancing with the audience. And Jan Martens‘s next piece The Common People will be about an encounter with members of the audience as well. In Paris dancers of Ballet de l’Opéra have been collaborating with visual artists in residency at Palais de Tokyo and in Vienna ImPulsTanz is collaborating with museums such as Weltmuseum and mumok. And, of course, let’s not forget Tino Sehgal: now revered as a visual artist, but he started out as a dancer.

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But back to that afternoon at Wiels. To Marie Goudot, dancing. Or to Michaël Pomero, performing the original dance phrase Vortex Temporum was based on. Both are gifted dancers and performers with charisma, and it’s great to watch them dance, from really close. But why are people so drawn to this? Why do friends tell me that they love this so much that they’ve returned to Wiels several times? ‘The aim is not to invent another kind of dance‘, was one of the quotes I wrote down during the press conference. ‘It’s asking what would happen if that dancing is governed by another set of rules.’ And: ‘This is not: a museum absorbing contemporary dance. It is: what happens when dance enters a museum and behaves as contemporary art.

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In the end, it all comes down to dynamics, I think. It has to do with a different kind of ‘togetherness’, and sharing a moment. Sure, when you’re watching a performance in a theater you share an experience as well, but the lights are out. Work/Travail/Arbeid is not happening in the dark, as Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker didn’t want the windows at Wiels to be covered. More importantly: as you’re looking at a dancer, you’re also looking at other people in the audience, watching intently. That is part of the fun. You’re sharing an experience in a different way than in a theatre. Another aspect: you’re more in control. You decide from which angle you’re going to watch this; where in the room you’re going to sit or stand, and you can change your position as often as you wish. Also: you decide when this is over, and not the artist. You can stay for a couple of hours, or leave whenever you feel you’ve had enough. (And allow me to point out one other detail that will have contributed to the success: a ticket for Work/Travail/Arbeid costs only 8 euro, whereas a ticket for Vortex Temporum in a big theatre costs at least 25 euro.)

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Sure, all of this is great. And the format is utterly contemporary, as museums are said to become places where people want to experience something, nowadays. Some even go as far as to say that this has become some sort of new religion, as I read in a newspaper recently. But purely seen from a dance perspective? Work/Travail/Arbeid did not live up to my expectations. Maybe it’s not meant to be seen from this angle, as this is about dance being governed by another set of rules. But nevertheless… For Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker this was a means to show dance material she had developed during rehearsals she would otherwise have never been able to show to the general public. The exhibition format enabled her to do so. Work/Travail/Arbeid is Vortex Temporum taken apart, folded open, in a way. But in the end, it didn’t shed new light on this dance material. Maybe for scholars, yes, who can sit through the whole nine hours. For me Work/Travail/Arbeid never equaled the experience of watching one of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s choreographies unfold in a theatre.

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So, what happens when dance is governed by another set of rules? It makes for a different experience, and it probably introduces a new audience to contemporary dance, as it leads to a performance that is easier to take in, but does it make the dance better? And will all those people buy a ticket for Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s next choreography? As a work of art, I think, Work/Travail/Arbeid makes more of an impression by the effects brought about by changing the parameters governing the work of art, than the work of art resulting from that change.

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Where all of this will lead the Belgian choreographer is too early to say. Her newest piece My Breathing Is My Dancing didn’t shed a light on that. It was a piece she worked on during the same period Work/Travail/Arbeid was on at Wiels and which was presented during the Kunstenfestivaldesarts. Performed with a flute player from Ictus, on the second floor of Wiels, and featuring music works by Salvatore Sciarrino, it felt as a work in progress, as some sort of improvisation even. The added bonus of which being that you had Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker herself… breathing and dancing in front of you.

‘Work/Travail/Arbeid’ , Het Theaterfestival (Brussels), September 11-13, 2015. Info here. It will be on at Centre Pompidou (Feb 26 – March 6 2016), Tate Modern (July 8-10, 2016; info here) and MoMA NY (March 25-April 2, 2017). Babette Mangolte is working on a film about the exhibition. For a New York Times review click here. Review in Artforum here.

(All pictures: Anne Van Aerschot)

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One Response to “What happens when dance is governed by another set of rules? Some thoughts on ‘Work/Travail/Arbeid’ by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (Wiels, Brussels)”

  1. […] an extensive, well balanced, overall picture of this performance, please read this article by Hans-Maarten Post of Utopia Parkway. It also contains information about its rerun in Brussels, performances in Paris and London and […]

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